If you owned a hip, modern hotel and charged $99 to $200 for each of its 45 rooms, would you forego a Saturday night's income so that a bunch of artists could commandeer the property and dress all the furniture in Saran Wrap? That's why the proprietors of Hotel Biba (320 Belvedere Rd., West Palm Beach) are such a cool bunch.
When arts administrator Kara Walker-Tomé moved to Lake Worth five years ago after having lived in New York and L.A., she turned to her husband and said, "Where's the alternative art scene?" There wasn't one, so she thought, "Why not whip one up myself?" Back in the big cities, she'd seen a cool gig: hotels converted into galleries for one-night-only events. With these in mind, she made a cold call to Biba and got what she describes as "the fastest, most enthusiastic yes I've ever received. "
Each year since 2002, Walker-Tomé sifts through proposals from local artists ("95 percent are from Palm Beach County") who want dibs on a room or the lobby or the pool at Biba for the Showtel exhibit. "It's interesting curatorially, because I'm selecting work that hasn't been created yet," Walker-Tomé says. In considering pitches from full-time artists as well as students and amateurs, she looks for "variety or something that has a strong concept. Some people have never done an installation but proposed something wonderful. I'm not looking at résumés. It's very democratic."
Walker-Tomé's willingness to take chances has led to the strangest of things. Last year, Itchy the Collage Artist (a.k.a. Victoria Skinner) made silkscreen collages of a woman and placed them under plexiglass in the bathtub, the sink, and the toilet bowl. That, with scrawled text on the mirror, suggested that the artist was saying something about entrapment. Another guy took over the hotel pool to install a floating sculpture made of inner tubes, sprinkler heads, and Astroturf. And, yes, someone did attack a room and cover every last object in Saran Wrap.
Participants expend a lot of energy and a lot of money on materials for a show that lasts just one night. "I'm always grateful and amazed," Walker-Tomé says. "They don't get a dime, and nothing's for sale." This year, she says, she "looked for proposals that have a performance element." So don't freak out if you find a live human in one of the beds (surrounded by sharks and candy, of course), see a guy mummify himself out back by the tiki torches, or discover that Hydra the Sea Serpent has recorded your voice and twisted it into some kind of mind-blowing sonic fireworks.
In 2002, Showtel used a dozen rooms and 18 artists, and 200 people showed up. This year, 40 artists are participating and using just about every room. We had to call Biba's assistant general manager, Jennifer Reichert, and ask: Do you lose a bunch of housekeepers after this event every year? "Oh, no," she says. "The artists are very responsible. They're allowed to do whatever they want as long as it's not permanent. We just dust it off the next day!"